“No law. No order. No time or space. Danger was the desert’s breath, and the landscape changed with every wind”
To pick back up on our discussion of the Pony Express riders, I will start by sharing an interaction Sir Richard Burton had with a rider just west of Willow Springs [Callao] before entering Overland Canyon, one of the most dangerous points on the route west of Salt Lake City.
Overland Canyon is where the Pony Express Trail passes around the north end of the Deep Creek Mountains. It is also where Canyon Station would later be burned and the employees and soldiers stationed there massacred by Indians.
Burton, an English scholar, writer and explorer had by this time completed expeditions to Asia, Africa and the Middle East before crossing the Utah West Desert in late September of 1860. Like countless others, this world famous explorer was fascinated by the “Great American Desert,” which is what the Great Plains and more specifically, the Great Salt Lake Desert, was known as back in those days. Burton just had to see it for himself.
His encounter with the Pony Express Rider went like this: “Here I rode forward with ‘Jim,’ a young express rider from the last station [Willow Springs], who volunteered much information on the subject of Indians. He carried two Colts revolvers of the dragoon or largest size, considering all others too small. I asked him what he would do if a Gosh Yuta appeared. He replied that if the fellow were civil, he might shake hands with him, if surely, he would shoot him, and at all events, when riding away he would keep a ‘stirrup eye’ upon him: that he was in the habit of looking around corners to see if anyone was taking aim — in which case he would throw himself from the saddle, or rush on, so as to spoil the shooting. The Indians, when charged becoming excited, fire without effect. He [Jim] pointed out a place where Miller, one of the express riders, had lately been badly wounded and lost his horse.”
It was a dangerous place out in the desert during that time for the riders. So much so that the superintendent of the line in the area, Major Howard Egan, requested additional arms and supplies from the US Army at Camp Floyd so the mail company employees could defend themselves against any threats.
Col. C.F. Smith, who by this time was the Commander at Camp Floyd, responded to the request in this manner: “The agent of the Pony Express at this place, in view of the reported Indian disturbances on the route to Carson Valley, requested of me a short time since to furnish him with a small supply of arms to enable the employees of the company on that part of the route to defend themselves on the road and at the stations. In view of the circumstances, I let him have 106 Army sized revolvers and 60 Mississippi rifles and some ammunition for the same on the condition of their being returned in good order — or being paid for if not.”
It seems that the Army was much more informal about loaning equipment back in those days and as a result, the Pony Riders and station men west of Salt Lake City were well armed.
One myth that has been passed down through the ages was that none of the Pony Riders or station men indulged in drinking whiskey.
Now for the most part, that is true but consider the times, predicaments, danger, fear and loneliness that would have plagued some of these men. Between you and me, if I were a rider back then and suffered some of those harrowing experiences and unbelievable hardship, I would have had myself a few “square drinks”.
When being interviewed by historian Howard Driggs for his book “The Pony Express Goes Through,” Pony Express rider William Streeper stated that not only did a few riders indulge but sometimes it was much more.
On one occasion, a rider was making a boast about how he could out ride anyone on the trail and as he was doing this, he was topping off several drinks. A bit later the rider left on his route and went missing. After a while, his associates feared he may have been killed by bandits or Indians but apparently, he was just drunk.
Streeper told Driggs: “Worse than that boy, he got dead drunk and I mean that. He [the missing express rider] was lying in the middle of the trail when I found him dead to the world. I thought first that he had been shot by the Indians but he hadn’t. It was some of that mule kick whiskey that knocked him plum senseless. Some of the stuff that unscrupulous fellows sold out on the trail was worse than fire water — it was poison.”
Most of the riders faced their fears or reservations head on and let me tell you, these guys were tough.
The Deseret News reported on 25 July 1860 that rider Jas Armstrong was shot through the thigh by Indians and rode on 30 miles in that condition to the next station delivering the mail. Charles B. Miller, who it is claimed, was thrown into the saddle at 11 years old when an empty horse arrived at the station without its rider. Miller said he was given a leather-bound bible and a six shooter and told to use the bible often and the gun only when necessary. This young boy said that he was mighty scared on his first ride and he needed his faith in God to get him through. Miller stated that on another ride he was chased by 10 painted Bannocks and that the Indians got two arrows into him but he still managed to get the mail through.
The riders weren’t the only ones along the line. This was the main route from Salt Lake City to California at the time and it was quite busy. There were stage coaches running from Sacramento to Salt Lake City, regular freight wagon trains bringing all supplies necessary for the 4-6 men at each station to survive at remote desert locations, emigrant wagon trains, daily water barrel wagons that traveled to and from springs to supply destitute stations with water, telegraph construction workers, miners traveling from one boom town to the next, cattle drives, mounted military patrols from Camp Floyd, Army deserters, horse thieves, highwaymen, hold up artists and other kinds of other outlaws.
As previously stated, on more than one occasion, the Express rider was picked up by the Overland Stage Coach when he met with a mishap on the trail and was transported with the mail to the next station.
One of my favorite characters who charged through our desert back in 1860 carrying the mail was William [Billy] Fisher.
Fisher, a 20-year-old Mormon emigrant, was hired by Howard Egan to carry the mail from Egan Station to Ruby Valley in Nevada and then after many harrowing experiences and the pleadings of his fiancé and mother, was transferred to the Salt Lake City to Rush Valley route.
A terrible war broke out in the late spring of 1860 between the Paiute Indians and the white settlers and immigrants. The Pony Express was right in the middle of this as it began when some station men allegedly took some native American girls hostage at an express station in the middle of Nevada. The Indians in the area were enraged by this and attacked the station and killed several of the station men there. Indians all along the line began attacking stations and settlements and the Pony Express was brought to a standstill for several months as the Army from Camp Floyd was dispatched deep into Nevada to sort it all out.
Billy Fisher was at Egan Canyon when the news of the attack came and he then went on one of the most incredible rides in the history of the Pony Express to get news of the events to Salt Lake City. Fisher rode 300 miles in 30 hours using eight horses and mules.
Fisher stated: “Several stations were burned upon the road and animals stolen which necessitated my riding so far.”
And that was the way of it for the Express Rider. If you rode your 75-100-mile daily stretch and arrived at your end point to find the rider there sick or absent, guess what? You saddled right back up and took the mail through another 75-100 miles or more. The relentless pounding of these long rides took a tremendous toll on horse and rider. Many horses were destroyed due to being pushed too hard and it is said that riders oftentimes arrived at the station with a bloody nose due to the constant jolt and pounding their bodies endured.
Other men mentioned as riding the Pony Express in our West Desert were Lot Huntington who later became an outlaw and had an unfortunate tangle with Porter Rockwell at Faust Station in 1862 that did not end well for him.
Another rider was Robert Orr. His brother Matthew and other members of the Orr family are said to have worked at express stations, namely Deep Creek. Henry “Doc” Faust was station keeper at Rush Valley [Faust Station] but when the riders were unable or missing, Doc Faust jumped in the saddle and carried the mail.
Major Howard Egan who was the superintendent of the line from Salt Lake City to Ruby Valley, Nevada, took the first ride with the mail west from SLC to Rush Valley on his horse “Miss Lightning.” Howard Egan, just like Doc Faust, carried the mail himself when necessary.
Thomas O. King, Howard Ransom Egan, George Washington Perkins, William [Bill] Streeper, Nicholas Wilson, Richard Erastus Egan, William Fisher, Bill Hickman and Captain Thomas Dobson are all mentioned as riders at some point out in the West Desert between Salt Lake City and Deep Creek.
There were many others but their names have been lost to history.
In future articles we will get to know these men and boys much better and relive some of their incredible experiences through their own words and then tie these events to the terrain so that when you go out on the trail you will understand what they experienced at different points of interest along the trail.
Rain, snow, sleet, hail, dust storms, alkali mud flats, mosquito swarms, half broke devil mustangs, wolves, dark desert nights, loneliness, fear, lightning, blizzards, freezing temperatures, drifting snow, rattle snakes, blistering heat, raiding Indians, lurking outlaws — these men and young boys faced it all and attacked the job of getting the mail through with a vengeance.
We are fortunate to live in an area so rich in history where we can easily get out onto the land where these events occurred and ponder what it would have been like for the Pony Express rider in our desert in 1860. Now hopefully, when you stop at one of the Express station markers and look up at the disk emblem and see the image of the rider with the mail on his mustang, you will have something more to consider.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Deseret with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.